Published Aug 23, 2019On his new album, Jimmy Lee, Raphael Saadiq breaks away from his usual feel-good love songs to assume the role of the titular protagonist, a heroin addict whose choices send him on a catastrophic spiral. It's a risky part, but the former Tony! Toni! Tone! member conveys the despondence of addiction with remarkable accuracy.
"I'm not a great actor, but I can act on records," says Saadiq, in an interview with Exclaim! over the phone. "I'm Denzel Washington on a record."
The album is based on a true story: Jimmy Lee was Saadiq's older brother. Fourteen years Saadiq's senior, Jimmy Lee was like another father figure in his younger brother's life. In conversation, Saadiq recalls lighting up with excitement whenever his brother would come home to visit, laden with gifts that his parents wouldn't buy for him. But there were also harder times, like when Jimmy would steal family treasures to support his drug habit. He was a good guy plagued by demons. Saadiq wanted to illustrate that duality on the album.
"I've seen people talk about people who have addictions in a bad way and I just never did. A lot of people in my family really liked Jimmy. I don't think he had many enemies," says Saadiq. "Sometimes Jimmy would break into our house and take things. And you know, my stepdad used to hate him! But I loved him. Jimmy Lee is about helping other people look at whoever [has an addiction in their life] in a more positive way. When people make that leap [and start using drugs], I don't know if they realize that they never get back."
Jimmy Lee, who was only 42 when he passed away in 1998, isn't the only one of Saadiq's 13 siblings who died young or struggled with drugs. There was another brother, Desmond, who died by suicide trying to escape the clutches of his own addiction. Saadiq's brother Alvie was murdered over a drug-related dispute. One of Saadiq's sisters was a bystander in a police chase — her car was hit during the pursuit and she later died from her injuries. Saadiq learned about her death while recording the 1990 classic "It Never Rains (In Southern California)." There was yet another sister who survived her bout with drugs, but Saadiq says her life was "never quite the same" after getting sober.
The myriad spots of tragedy colouring Saadiq's life left him with many unanswered questions. But for decades he made a point to keep his personal pain out of his music.
"I didn't think I'd ever make a record like Jimmy Lee. For 20, 25 years, my thought process was to make records [that] feel good to me, [and] feel good to an audience. I never actually thought about making a record about drug addiction or my brother. But being a creative mind, your mind just wanders off and before you know it, you have seven songs about the same thing that's on your mind," says Saadiq. "For me, I think the record was therapy. It's called Jimmy Lee, but it's about Jimmy, it's about my brother Desmond, it's about my brother Alvie, who lost his life to somebody killing him over drugs. I never really talked to anybody about it. I never got a chance to ask anyone, 'What was that one thing that made you think that you should do [drugs] when you've actually seen other people cross that line and never get back?' So the record is about Jimmy Lee and the questions I didn't get to ask him: 'What was the temptation? What was the point in your life when you thought you could do [drugs]?'"
This new record is a stark pivot for Saadiq. From his days with Tony! Toni! Toné! to his albums, to countless collaborations with legends ranging from Stevie Wonder to Mary J. Blige, Saadiq has shown exceptional versatility and staying power. But he has never crafted an album this raw. Jimmy Lee is dark and chaotic, the lyrics achingly sad and the music frenzied. Unlike his previous work, Saadiq provides little opportunity for his listeners to settle into a groove — every song on the album ends in jarring static before throwing to the next vignette. Saadiq was very intentional about injecting chaos into his sound.
"I was actually trying to be very abrupt. That's how all of the surprises have been my life — abrupt and out of the blue," says Saadiq. "I wanted to jump people from story to story. I wanted the record to [feel] the way that I did, seeing those very abrupt surprises."
But even though Jimmy Lee represents a first for Saadiq in terms of being so candid about his personal life, the singer says he has no qualms about opening up. Saadiq doesn't overthink things; he dives into the music and goes wherever it takes him.
"I didn't see [opening up] as being scary at all. I just sort of went down this rabbit hole, to be honest. I had a totally different record at first. But pieces of [Jimmy Lee] were always there, so I started piecing it together and this is what it ended up being. I've always liked telling stories. I think this is just the story I ended up telling."
Jimmy Lee is out August 23 courtesy of Columbia Records.